In life, John Lennon had tens of millions of fans. And though we lost him more than 40 years ago, there are likely more Lennon fans now than ever. Lennon loved his fans. He cheered them on and challenged them. It was important to him that people enjoyed his music, particularly his latest releases. He knew all about the joy in listening to the latest song of a favorite artist. Lennon wanted to inspire similar joy with his own material. It was something that drove his creative and competitive spirit. John Lennon understood the business he was in. Besides that, John Lennon was a fan.
In his book, John Lennon 1980 Playlist, Tim English, provides a spirited and informative account of the music that moved Lennon in the last year of his life. The Lennon playlist of 1980 is mostly of its time. Lennon had stepped away from the recording scene for nearly five years to spend time raising his and Yoko Ono’s son, Sean, but he still kept up with the music scene he and his fellow Beatles did so much to shape nearly two decades before.
Lennon liked much of what he heard on the radio during his “house-husband” years, quite often instructing an aide to fetch the latest albums by artists who caught his attention. As with the artists and musical genres that inspired him as a child and teenager, Lennon’s tastes were unbounded in his adult years. No doubt the composer and musician in him heard something even in lower-tier pop music that most serious listeners disregarded. He worked hard on his material and was his own toughest critic. When taking in the music flooding the airwaves, Lennon showed a generous and excitable spirit, enjoying the hits and always ready to dance, even to the disco music so pervasive at the time.
In September 1980 Lennon told Barbara Graustark of Newsweek, “I like pop music. I like Olivia Newton John singing ‘Magic’ and Donna Summer singing whatever the hell she’ll be singing. I like the ELO singing ‘All Over The World.’ I can dissect it and criticize it with any critic in the business.”
On John Lennon 1980 Playlist, Tim English leaves no stone unturned when covering much of the music Lennon played, praised or critiqued from 1977 on. It is also filled with backstories on not just the music but the wayward and confounding years that followed the breakup of The Beatles. Vietnam. Watergate. The death of Elvis Presley. American hostages in Iran. Ronald Reagan elected president. With the ’70s closing, John Lennon wasn’t sure if 1980 was the year he’d reemerge on the music scene. As it turned out, he became the biggest music story in 1980, for reasons joyful and tragic.
We know enough about the tragic. For those of us who heard the news on December 8, 1980. the tragic sticks like a permanent scar. It’s a darkness that hovers even as we listen to the exuberant Lennon on ”
[Just Like] Starting Over” from his and Ono’s Double Fantasy album or as we watch his comic turns in A Hard Day’s Night. But we still listen and watch despite the feeling of loss. The creative spark so evident in his lively and edifying work remains strong and doesn’t let go.
English conveys the elation a lifetime in music brought to Lennon. He listened and he reacted: From his boyhood days when he first heard Bing Crosby’s “Please” (recorded in 1932) to the fall of ’80 when he called Bruce Springsteen’s The River album “f-ing great.” “This is better than Double Fantasy,” he said. High praise indeed from a competitive artist once again at the top of his game.
Music from decades long past or from just the year before inspired Lennon’s work on Double Fantasy . That’s made evident throughout John Lennon 1980 Playlist. Lennon approached music like the journalist David Halberstam did reporting; if a piece of music caught his interest, no detail was too small to ignore — a connection was always possible. Like a mechanic who loves to get under the hood, take the engine apart and then reassemble it, Lennon loved going through the elements and components of a song. In the recording process, he’d anticipate what would make the song expressive or give it swing. English reports that Lennon gave a list of songs — his own and those by other artists — to the musicians in the Double Fantasy sessions so they would understand the kind of sounds he wanted to create. The songs included the Jermaine Jackson hit, “Let’s Get Serious,” B. B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone,” Buddy Holly’s “Listen to Me,” Chuck Berry’s “Havana Moon” as well as unlikely selections such as “Sailing” by Christopher Cross, “Rise” by Herb Alpert and, yes, even “Feelings” by Morris Albert. Lennon emphasized to the players he didn’t want them to copy anyone else’s music. They should absorb the sounds. Embrace the feelings. From there they could take things one or two steps further while learning the first set of original songs Lennon had brought to a studio in over five years.
John Lennon was thrilled with Double Fantasy. He was happy to see “(Just Like) Starting Over,” influenced by two heroes, Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison, climb the charts and he was ecstatic that Yoko’s contributions to the albums were so well received. There was leftover material from the Double Fantasy sessions. Another album could emerge in a year’s time.
For Lennon, a spark was lit in the summer of 1980. In a Bermuda Bar, something playing on the jukebox caught his attention. As he told journalist Jonathan Cott, “I suddenly heard ‘Rock Lobster’ by the B-52’s for the first time. Do you know it? It sounds just like Yoko’s music, so I said to meself, ‘It’s time to get out the old ax and wake the wife up!’” So John grabbed his old ax and along with Yoko and all the music in his head, the inspiration flowed. It was like he never left. John Lennon 1980 Playlist gives us more insight into Lennon’s tight grasp of the musical world of which he was a leading contributor. Tim English’s book is a reminder of how much we have missed since 1980.